What are the most unusual festivals and events?

Tomatina tomato fight (photo by Viajar24h – CC-BY)

Some of the most interesting and most enjoyable events are also the most unusual and esoteric.

Las Fallas – Valencia Fire Festival (week ending 19 March)

This remarkable festival of fire and fireworks in Valencia, Spain, will surely excite the latent pyromaniac in us!

Each day of Las Fallas (Falles in Valencian) there are two firework displays. The first—at 2pm in the afternoon—consists of a cacophany of noisy explosions with lots of smoke. The second—late in the evening—is a large and impressive display of traditional fireworks. There are also brass bands, processions, an enormous floral virgin, and much rowdy partying.

Hundreds of combustible statues are erected, many over six metres tall. They may be provocative, satirical, ugly or grotesque—or simply caricatures of famous people.

On the final evening (the “crema”, or burning), the statues are systematically destroyed. Flaming arrows and explosives are used to set them alight, after which they collapse into massive bonfires. After that, the final firework spectacular takes place and the largest statue (falla) is destroyed, to close the festival.

World Championship Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival (May)

“Mountain Oysters” are bulls’ testicles, also known as “calf fries”. If you can barbecue them better than anyone else, you’ll win the World Championship Rocky Mountain Oyster competition in Throckmorton, Texas.

Apparently, “on the cattle drives of yesteryear the calf fries would be tossed into the branding fire and allowed to cook to perfection … they popped open when they were done.” The oysters are provided by the organizers, and the competition rules require judges to award points for “appearance, tenderness/texture, aroma and taste”.

If mountain oysters are not your style, there is also a “Tastes Like Chicken” competition, where you can cook anything unusual.

The Vogalonga on Venice’s canals (Whitsun/Pentecost)

Once a year there is a massive event held on a circuit through Venice’s lagoon and canals. It’s a 30 km (19 mile) circuit, and is a non-competitive amateur “race”. Anyone may participate on virtually any paddle-powered or oar-propelled boat.

There are thousands of participants, and well over a thousand craft, which provides a chaotic and exciting spectacle.

Cheese-Rolling at Cooper’s Hill (last Monday in May)

Cheese-rolling is a quirky English tradition dating back hundreds of years. The premier event is surely the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, held near Gloucester, in the United Kingdom, each Spring Bank Holiday Monday.

At noon, a round of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the hill, and one second later the competitors start to chase it. The hill, however, is very steep and rough, and many competitors stumble, tumble and slide down the hill in pursuit of the cheese. Further races follow, with “uphill races” in between. If you want to participate, entry is on the day and is free.

Injuries are frequent. The 2008 first race was won by Chris Anderson, who “was stretchered off wearing a neck brace on a spinal board after hurting his back as he finished head over heels”, although no lasting harm was done. Mark Cooper came third in the 2008 second race, before noticing that he had “quite a big hole” in his knee, after which he the St John Ambulance medics patched him up before taking him to hospital where he “spent the next four days having two operations under general anaesthetic”.

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge (Around June 20/21)

The ancient monument of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom is part of the human cultural heritage. It’s controlled by English Heritage, who for most of the year keep people away from the stones. You can “look but not touch” from a distance, getting to know the stones from “interpretive displays” in the visitors’ centre rather than by approaching the stones themselves.

But once a year something magic happens. Since 2000, English Heritage has allowed people to visit the stones overnight at the Summer Solstice. You can’t take tents or even sleeping bags (but picnic mats and blankets are OK), and you can’t climb on the stones (but a blind eye is generally turned to hugging them). Drums will be beating in the background, rising to a crescendo at dawn.

Many of the thousands who make this pilgrimage each year have a special place in their heart for the stones, and the atmosphere is truly memorable.

Bognor Birdman Rally (July)

In Bognor, England, there’s a seaside pier. Every July they build a launch platform on the end of it, and people can jump off. The aim is to wear a contraption that will take you as far as possible from the pier.

There are prizes for hang-gliders, unique designs, and fun designs. But the biggest prize is £30,000 for anyone who can fly further than 100 metres from the 10-meter launch platform.

The main theme is authorized tomfoolery rather than aviation science, but that hasn’t stopped people from taking it seriously, and the maximum distance flown has increased steadily over the years. 100 metres cannot be very long coming.

Amtrak Mooning Day (Second Saturday of July)

Amtrak is the operator of long distance passenger trains in the United States. Mooning is the action of lowering your shorts and displaying your buttocks in an irreverent gesture. And once every year since 1980, thousands of people have gathered at Laguna Niguel, California, to moon at every passing train. The event is generally tolerated with humor by the police, although it was dispersed early in 2008 when the nudity became excessive.

One website advises “To the people of countries outside the U.S.A. visiting our web site: Less than one-hundreth (1/100) of a per-cent of our population does this. All in this photo are serious, hard working people, yet enjoy time off from their jobs. Notice, everyone is smiling!”.

Wife Carrying World Championships (July)

As recently as the 19th century, the practice of wife stealing was alive in Finland. “Finnish men of the era were known to plunder the female populations of neighbouring local villages, taking what took their eye, caveman style.”

Today, the people of Sonkajärvi, Finland keep that tradition alive with their Wife Carrying World Championships, although nowadays the “wife” can be any female over 17. Similar festivals have sprung up around the world, but this one is the genuine article, including hazards such as sand, water and jumps.

La Tomatina (Last Wednesday of August)

Do you fancy throwing tomatoes in a crowded street for an hour? If so, Buñol (38km outside Valencia in Spain) is the place to be, during their annual tomato festival.

La Tomatina kicks off with a climb up a greasy pole to “liberate” a ham from the top. Around noon the water cannons fire and the food fight begins. Trucks distribute over a hundred tons of over-ripe tomatoes. For an hour, the crowd throws these around wildly and enthusiastically, then the water cannons fire again and the fight is over for another year.

Buñol (Bunyol) is a small town, so many people come up from Valencia for the day, then clean up in the river before catching the train or bus back afterwards.

Bog Snorkelling Championships (Last Monday in August)

Bog Snorkelling involves donning mask and flippers (fins), and swimming two lengths of a 55-meter long trench cut into a peat bog and flooded. Conventional swimming strokes are not allowed.

The championship races are held in Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales. There are categories for men, ladies, juniors, local men, local ladies, and “slowest”.

An offshoot sport, Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling, involves filling the bike frames with lead and the the tires with water.

Burning Man (The week prior to US Labor Day)

“Every year, tens of thousands of participants gather to create Black Rock City in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, dedicated to self-expression, self-reliance, and art as the center of community. They leave one week later, having left no trace.”

That’s how Burning Man’s own website describes the festival. Their First Timer’s Guide says that the first time “can be seriously daunting”, and that “Burning Man is not for the faint of heart”, but they reassure you that “you’re guaranteed not to be the weirdest kid in the classroom”. Wow! And the List of Things Not To Bring even includes “Large public swimming pools”! And you must bring a fire extinguisher if you plan to burn your artwork.

You can expect to find art, performance, fire, music, noise, dust, wind, heat, coolth, theme camps, nudity, drunkenness, more art, amplified music, mutant vehicles, chanting, dancing, massage, rope, body art, circus, shaving, poetry, games and parties—but not large-scale flame effects “using 40 or more gallons of fuel”.

The ten principles of Burning Man are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day (19th September)

Avast! September 19th is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a parodic holiday when people are encouraged to speak like pirates. Everyone can join in. Gar!

This day, invented by John Baur and Mark Summers, has gained a widespread cult following. At one time Google even offered a Pirate interface to its search engine!

World Gurning Championships (September)

Egremont (in Cumbria, England) keeps alive the old English tradition of Gurning competitions, as part of their Crab Fair and Sports day (established in 1267!).

Gurning involves twisting your face into bizarre contortions, without using your hands or any other prop (although the gurner traditionally peers through a horse’s collar).

At Egremont, there were over 40 contestants in 2008, but none could unseat the reigning champion of ten years, Tommy Mattinson.

An earlier version of this article was posted to Google Knol.

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